Whether you’re an experienced racer or only aspiringly so, it’s nice to imagine that somewhere there’s an untapped well of potential that's just sat there waiting to transform you into a WorldTour star.
The first step to locating and exploiting this resource is a training plan. Luckily, nowadays these sweat-stained roadmaps for cycling success come wrapped up in fun packaging. Cycling-specific virtual training apps will help you decide your goals, and, assuming you stick to the programme, see you well on the way to reaching them.
From computer game-style simulations that are fun enough to distract you from the effort you’ll be required to expend, to more austere and programmatic options, we’ve rounded up five popular choices.
From ads splashed all over mainstream television, to achieving a valuation north of $1-billion, Zwift is pretty inescapable. If somehow you’ve missed it, the virtual training platform connects riders, allowing them to race or train in a reactive virtual environment. Having bunged the UCI a wedge of cash, there’s now even a virtual World Championships with its own rainbow jersey.
A bit like logging on to play Fifa, there’s plenty of competitive racing to be had any time and against riders anywhere in the world. However, there are also more structured programmes on offer focusing on a range of goals, from targeting a first crit race to riding a Gran Fondo. All based around your FTP or functional threshold power, each will prescribe workouts centred around achieving a certain number of Stress Points. Riding as hard as you can for an hour, i.e. at 100% of your FTP, is worth 100 Stress Points. Giving you a window of a few days in which to complete each workout, this allows you to gauge both the overall time and effort needed to commit to each plan.
Always ahead on entertainment value, the idea that Zwift lags behind more data-driven training apps is increasingly less true. With plenty of individual sessions, for those following existing programmes, it’s now also possible to import your own from third-party coaching platforms or design them from scratch.
Related – The Best Smart Turbo Trainers: The Desire Selection
With inducements to ride like the yearly Zwift academy training rides and races, Zwift’s major selling point is still its ability to motivate. However, you're now going to need an even higher degree of athleticism before exhausting its structured training features.
Allowing your legs to experience exactly what you see on screen, having a power meter or smart turbo will help make the most of the whole experience. Yet if you simply want to get online, Zwift will still work with just a compatible speed and cadence sensor, making it less of a financial commitment for those with more basic home trainers. Currently, you’ll get seven days free to see if you like it, after which Zwift will syphon £12.99 from your bank account each month.
Nothing with this many graphs could possibly lead to anything other than success. Add in the fact that your journey to greatness will kick off with a short but gruelling functional threshold power (FTP) test, and you’ll quickly get the picture; TrainerRoad is the austere and data-driven alternative to directionless haring about on Zwift.
From the start, you can plan your calendar race by race, or set more general goals. A series of customisable training blocks are then generated around these, also allowing you to take your sessions outside too. The amount of detail – from event type, to duration, or the data spat back at you while training – is impossible to summarise here. Basically, it’s a lot. Nevertheless, in use TrainerRoad is incredibly simple. You begin your session, and try to keep your power, and possibly other metrics matched as closely to the required effort shown on the screen.
Although the platform now has the capacity for group training, you’re really on your own when it comes to motivation. Similarly, with no virtual world to explore or people to race against, you’ll need to amuse yourself. However, without these distractions, TrainerRoad can be incredibly focused. And that focus is all aimed at real-world performance. If the thought of being dropped in your next race haunts you enough, you’ll stick it out. But given the intensity of some of the workouts, it might not be for everyone.
Happily, to get going, all you need is something to strap your phone to the bars plus a speed sensor. Thanks to the platform’s VirtualPower algorithm, most non-smart trainers are supported meaning it’s not essential to shell out on a smart trainer or power meter. Costing $20 a month, TrainerRoad is free if you cancel within the first 30 days, so there’s no reason not to give it a whirl. You’ll either unlock your inner athlete or quickly kick it in. There’s not much to lose either way.
Road Grand Tours (RGT)
Road Grand Tours offers pure gamification. Providing eight courses set on or around locations including Cap De Formentor, Mont Ventoux, Stelvio, Flanders, and somewhat oddly Canary Wharf, these are rendered with enough detail as to be instantly recognisable.
Cleverly, it’s also possible to create your own Magic Road course based on an uploaded GPX route file. Taking into account the actual gradient, it’s a great feature for anyone training for a specific route.
Far more realistic looking than the more cartoon style of Zwift, unlike its rival where pedalling is pretty much the be-all and end-all, an RGT race requires a degree of tactics to successfully navigate. For one thing, as you descend around corners you’ll automatically slow down. At the same time, you can’t pass directly through other riders, so you’ll have to be careful to avoid collisions. With smart drafting, you can see in real-time the benefit you’re receiving, while tactics like getting to the head of the pack at the start of a climb are also important.
Providing a library of different drills, these structured workouts can be undertaken on the app's virtual roads, and also form the basis of various longer-term training plans. At the same time, it’s also possible to import calendars from services like TrainerRoad.
Able to control your smart trainer to adjust the level of resistance, it's worth investing in one for the most immersive experience. However, it’s possible to use RGT with just a power meter, although not with a simple speed and cadence set-up like Zwift. You’re also going to need two devices to run the app: one a tablet to act as the screen, and a second (most likely a smartphone) to control it.
To tempt you in, RGT will let you try out racing or riding on three of its courses for free. Further features like structured workouts or the Magic Road function will then require a subscription costing £6.99 a month.
Training Peaks is sort of like Strava for data junkies. Its key capability is logging and analysing workouts. Compatible with a huge range of third-party apps like Zwift or devices like a Garmin and Wahoo, if you complete any type of ride or workout, you can send it straight to your calendar. Here you’ll be able to examine all of your metrics and keep an eye on how you’re progressing. At the same time, it’ll also give you the ability to add qualitative data on how you felt during the session. This can then serve as a log for yourself or be shared with a coach.
Perfect for structuring a plan around an event or series of races, it’ll leave no excuse for not knowing what comes next with regards to your training. At the same time, once you jump in, you’ll get colour-coded feedback on how closely you’ve managed to stick to the requirements of each session. So far, so free to use.
Where Training Peaks makes its cash is selling its plans. These range from a few pounds to over a hundred. Even British Cycling got in on the act, moving its formerly free-to-access plans behind a paywall and asking £30 for them. For those looking for an even deeper dive into their data, the $20 per month premium version also unlocks some extra analytics tools including a greater emphasis on monitoring fatigue, form, and fitness.
What Training Peaks won’t do is work directly with a smart turbo trainer. This means many of its users end up with multiple subscriptions. With its calendar feature now also being aped by TrainerRoad, it still functions well as a bridge between trainer and athlete.
One rider whose opinion we canvassed described it as; ‘the aged bike shop mechanic of the training apps. Crossed arms, shaking his head and refusing to sell you a set of carbon wheels until you reach Cat 1’. Still, sometimes we all need a bit of tough love. Yet with the high cost of its plans, should you decide to go your own way, the more basic functionality included with other apps will probably be enough. Either way, its free features remain a solid reason to give it a try.
Augmented reality. Perhaps new to you, but very familiar to Pokémon GO aficionados. Rouvy will drop you, or at least a virtual avatar representing you, onto thousands of famous roads from around the world. While most of these roads will let you tick up them, others have further game-style features, allowing you to race against groups of other riders.
Pleasingly, Rouvy will work with a standard trainer, with its videos prompting users to adjust the resistance. Of course, a better experience can be had by twinning it to a smart turbo, which will do the job for you.
With the ability to link riders together, you can invite your mates to join you on a virtual spin up any number of famous climbs. Recently introduced, its drafting feature also now makes racing slightly more tactical. Alternatively, if spending all your time indoors has left you without friends, you can substitute in virtual cycling bots to compete against.
It might seem a minor grumble, but my fantasy cycling world doesn’t include cars, so the odd vehicle passing by on the videos seems mildly jarring. On the plus side, if you’re scoping out a ride, you’ll get a real feel for being there, making Rouvy an unconventional route planning tool when it comes to plotting your next venture abroad. Allowing you to take in the scenery from the comfort of your dungeon, there’s also a huge number of more workouts and training rides. And if you have a particular course you want to replicate, you can do this using a GPX file, and even add a video if you want.
There’s also the ability to import sessions or design them yourself via the in-app editor. For those wanting to track real-world improvements, throughout the year you can accumulate points based on Training Stress Score (TSS), plus there are tons of fully structured sessions to complete. Currently free to try for 14-days, after that Rouvy will set you back $12 per month.